Archive for April, 2013

#18 – On Looking for Possibilities: “But I can’t just change now!”

April 14, 2013 Leave a comment

Spring is often seen as a season of renewal, a time when things that have been dormant during the winter emerge and begin to grow again. For baseball fans, this sense of renewal arrives annually as their favorite teams leave the confines of winter and head for sunnier locations and the annual ritual of spring training. As noted baseball owner and executive Bill Veeck once observed, “the true harbinger of spring [is] not crocuses or swallows returning to Capistrano, but the sound of a bat on the ball.” This is a time when shortcomings of the previous season can be addressed and attention given to sharpening skills that can help during the long season ahead. For fans, this is a time in which old disappointments can be set aside in favor of new hopes, when they can imagine themselves in a world where they are once again young and imbued with a sense of possibility. In short, this is a time for fresh starts.

Yet, in a world where most people are reduced to spectators, for many the sense of possibility that spring training represents can seem distant, even absent in their daily lives. Instead, they plod through what Henry David Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation” — outwardly satisfied, yet inwardly longing. Some of them, tired of enduring this quiet suffering, find their way into my office. Ranging in age from twenties to sixties, these people come with pained yet quizzical expressions, often greeting me with the familiar cliché — “I think I’m having a midlife crisis!”

These people often report a variety of symptoms — anxiety, depression, or other stress-related problems. Some have been referred by their doctors after having found no relief from taking medicine. In general, they feel lost and frustrated and without purpose. Their circumstances vary, but their sense of being trapped and helpless does not. Needing to do something, yet fearful of doing the wrong thing, they continue to do nothing except be miserable. Unhappy with where they are in their lives, they simply cannot see any way to arrange something better. Almost without exception, these people have lost all sense of possibility.

So, how does someone manage to get into such a persistent and disheartening routine? Certainly few of us would set out to establish ourselves in lives of such oppressive tedium. So how does it happen? The answer is deceptively simple: one day at a time. Adhering to the encouragements we receive as children, which often persist well into adulthood, we are prompted each day to “get ahead,” to “be successful, and to “make something of ourselves.” The result is that many of us find ourselves obediently moving though life in a direction that we may have contemplated only vaguely if at all.

Almost from our very arrival on the planet we are coaxed and cajoled, pushed and prodded to find our way into the competitive mainstream. Today there is even intense competition for placement of youngsters (more like toddlers) in the most desirable or advantageous pre-school programs. Not gaining entry into one of these programs is often seen as a failure that marks the unfortunate child as somehow deficient. This child may even be put into some kind of remedial program, often with the result that the sense of personal inadequacy is simply reinforced. And it doesn’t end there. High school students are increasingly being required to select a college major even before enrolling in college as freshmen. Then, upon graduating from college, they are expected to emerge fully qualified in some professional or technical capacity so they can immediately “be productive.” From there the popular culture urges everyone to achieve, to earn, and above all to consume, with an ever higher “standard of living” as the way of keeping score.

With all this emphasis on competition and accomplishment so early in life, people are increasingly finding themselves living with life choices that they would prefer not to have made. In therapy many start to become aware of their own frustrations and latent resentments over not having had the time to consider a variety of life paths or to explore their own personal interests and talents. And yet, despite being upset over where they are, most believe there are no options for change — no possibilities. Some are held in place by fearing what other people might think of them if they do seek something different; others simply have no clear idea of what they might actually want. Yet, however gradually, the focus of therapy inevitably does shift from regret to change.

To be sure, such change is not easy — especially when you have already invested decades in your present circumstances. Even when you are clear on the change you want to make, starting over can be a major undertaking, potentially impacting career, income, relationships, family, and more. This is why so many cling to their misery rather than trying to pursue their passion. And if you have not yet found your passion, the effort just to look for it can be equally daunting. It isn’t surprising, then, that so many of us hesitate before deciding to make a major life change.

My own journey has sometimes been ponderous and often frustrating (See #2 and #3). But it taught me that life doesn’t necessarily work the way many of us were encouraged to believe. The course of life rarely runs in a straight line. Instead, it presents us with many twists and turns and forks in the road — many possibilities. In the modern hurry-up world where everything must happen in the space of a sound bite, we are not encouraged to explore many possibilities. Yet they are there. Indeed each year, each week, each hour, even each moment can be viewed as a chance for a fresh start, just as in spring training. As Cleveland Indians ace pitcher Bob Feller once observed, “Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday’s success or put its failures behind and start over again. That’s the way life is, with a new game every day.”

If you’ve ever watched a hitter trying to break out of a slump, you’ve seen someone busily experimenting — adjusting his grip, his stance, his position at the plate, his weight shift, his timing, and more. This is someone willing to try anything to start hitting, no matter how outlandish or disruptive it might seem or how awkward he might look in trying, because he knows that without doing that he will wind up on the bench. That’s also the way it is with life. We must always be open to possibilities and willing to explore new directions, even knowing that change will not be easy. Yet change we must if we are truly to be ourselves and to participate fully in what life has to offer. Otherwise, rather than being in the game, we could wind up just sitting on life’s bench.

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